Acupuncture and I: A New Love Story

Regular readers of this blog will know that 2016 was a tough running year for me. I had so many injury niggles over the year, and my anxiety around my running got so bad that I had to step back from races and even longer runs because my IBS flare ups were making it impossible to run.

But then towards the end of last year, a friend reached out with the idea of an experiment of sorts, after reading my blog post about my IBS. This friend is an acupuncturist in Ely, and we know each other through a mutual friend. We actually ran Insane Terrain as part of a team of 4 back in 2014. So, he offered to give me a few free sessions of acupuncture, and if they went well I could tell you guys about it, and if they didn’t help me, we could just part ways and continue to meet up at the odd get together.

Now I’ve always been pretty open to the idea of “alternative therapies” (the category that acupuncture tends to get lumped into) so I was more than happy to give it a go. After an introduction session where Anthony spent about an hour learning about my medical background (reasonably complex) and commenting on my “slippery” pulse (that didn’t sound like a compliment), I then had a cluster of treatments over a 6 week period, before moving to a treatment every 4-6 weeks.

Insane Terrain

Insane Terrain. Yes those shorts were odd.

The good thing about Anthony is that although he is incredibly knowledgeable about what he does, he is in no way preachy about it, something I would struggle to get on board with. Instead he just drops into the conversation the fact that I have too much “Yang” (always go, go, go for me) in between the two of us putting the world to rights discussing everything from politics to reality TV. He is incredibly easy to talk to and is also a huge advocate of discussing the importance of mental health, a cause close to my heart (he highly recommends the Headspace app and is the brains behind Talking FreELY, a new Mental Health Awareness group in Ely). All of these things make a great practitioner.

As for the treatment itself, I do get a load of needles put into me (I think the most was maybe about 25) but they don’t hurt. Sometimes they cause a pins and needles sensation but it’s never uncomfortable. Anthony also uses moxa, a herb which he lights and allows to smoulder on my back which is then removed as soon as I start to feel the heat. It’s used to impact on the flow of “qi” in the area being treated, and I am obsessed with the smokey aroma it gives off. A nice side effect. He also often places ear seeds on my ear on trigger points where I can press on them whenever I feel my anxiety building.

But I guess the question is, did acupuncture work for me? My IBS issues during training all but disappeared (apart from when I failed to avoid triggers, such as episodes of unusually high stress or a super strong coffee less than 2 hours before a 10 mile run – idiotic) and my general demeanour around races has been a lot calmer. But the real test was always going to be the Cambridge Half Marathon. A race with a capacity of 9000 runners is huge for me. I hate being in large crowds, and in previous years I would be unbearable to be around from about 2 weeks before the race. Usually I would be maybe 15% excited and 85% nervous about a race like this, but this year it was easily the other way around. I also planned my morning pretty carefully, hanging out at my sister’s until about 10 past 9, before running/jogging to Jesus Green, using the completely empty public toilets there (perhaps I shouldn’t be letting you lot in on this tip!) and then simply hopping the gate into my starting pen 4 minutes before the race was due to start. I avoided all of those stress triggers, and went on to do the race of my life. I firmly believe that the treatment Anthony has done on me has played a huge part in my running epiphany, and I’ve been a (paying) customer of his since the start of the year, and will continue to be from now on.

Finding Focus for the Cambridge Half

Sometimes, things don’t always go to plan.

Take the NYE 10k. I had a miserable time of it, and it really threw me. It was mentally and physically difficult, and I felt weak and my confidence around future long races took a serious hit, leading me to doubt whether or not I even wanted to run long distance anymore. It felt like the joy of it had completely gone.

This Sunday (the 28th February), it’s the Cambridge Half Marathon. As training, I’ve done one 7 mile run, two 8 mile runs and two 11 mile runs. These training sessions have been spread out and sporadic, not helped by the three weeks of training I missed due to the awful cold-afflicted time I had of it at the end of January. Most of these runs have been tougher than I’m used to, because at the moment I’m probably only at around 65% of my peak fitness. This also means that I’ve picked up niggles along the way, including a “grumpy” knee and a pulled groin as recently as last week. All of this piles up so that I stress out and run in a tense, stiff posture, making myself more likely to get hurt. It’s a vicious cycle. In addition to this, I’ve been struggling with my hydration due to medication, and this weekend have also developed an allergic reaction to something that has covered parts of my body – including my feet – in a sore, uncomfortable rash. Awesome (and attractive).

theplague

So I admit that I’ve been tempted to bail on the Half on numerous occasions. At times it felt like the universe was telling me to. I knew a PB would be hard to come by, and I was worried about doing myself more damage on a long run that I was unprepared for. But then something awful happened that made me snap out of my funk and regain my focus.

A fellow local runner and blogger Marcus Gynn lost his fight against cancer on the 11th February. Now I know Marcus for a variety of reasons. My other half grew up with him, and had always told me stories about Marcus, mostly based around his Duke of Edinburgh shenanigans, including being chased by a bull in his bright orange high vis jacket, and setting fire to himself so that his fellow DofE buddies had to roll him down a hill to put him out while he laughed his head off. Since then I’d bumped into Marcus at a variety of races, due to his sheer love of running (his medal haul was pretty epic) and the fact that we ran at a really similar pace. I remember how tickled my OH was when he saw this race from the 2014 Cambridge Half and Marcus and I were the only runners in the photo:

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Marcus would have loved to be running the Cambridge Half again, and here I was whinging that it was hard. Of course it’s bloody hard sometimes. If it wasn’t we’d all be nipping off for a 13 mile run before work. So I’ve completely reassessed why I run. I started doing it because like Marcus, I loved it. If I’m not at peak fitness I don’t have to push for a PB. I can just enjoy it. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to run with my friend Rachel, soak up the atmosphere, and run it for Marcus. I’ve sorted my niggles out with some epic osteopathy sessions with miracle-worker Melissa at Spritely Osteopathy and with an intense sports massage from Megan at the FAST Clinic (damn my stubborn glutes!) and I’m trying to get a handle on this rash. But if I have to slather my feet in Vaseline or even crawl this run, I’m going to do it. Unless anyone’s up for giving me a piggyback?

An awesome Twitterer has also set up an account in Marcus’ memory, @runformarcus1. The aim is to raise as much money for Marcus’ family’s chosen charities as possible, and in return you get a wristband with #runformarcus on it that you can wear on all your runs so that a part of him is always with you, cheering you on. If you’d like to donate £5 (to cover the cost of the band plus ensure a decent bit for the charities) or more you can do so here. Please also have a read of his blog if you can. It’s a joy to read and his bravery in the face of his illness is awe-inspiring.

I’m going to #RunForMarcus on Sunday. I really hope you’ll join me.

 

Sometimes it’s OK to Walk (or Run) Away

Some of you may have realised that I have a tendency to overcommit myself. Whether it’s making cakes at 10pm, leading running groups for beginners, volunteering at parkrun, hosting cake clubs, learning Italian, attempting to add a couple of hundred words to my novel in the evening, blogging(!), making cards/cross stitches/bauble wreaths/arm knitted scarves (yes, really) for people and probably more that I can’t remember as my brain is in a permanent low state of frazzlement (yes that’s now a word). I often get asked how I do as much as I do and sometimes I don’t really know. I guess some weeks some of these things take a back seat to others and I try my best to prioritise whilst still – most importantly – finding time for my family and friends.

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Standard Monday evening

I like to help people and I’m awful at saying no regardless of circumstances. And I really hate to let people down once I’ve committed to something.  But mostly I think I have quite a bad case of FOMO. I like to sign up to things and say yes to things that interest me because what if they’re brilliant and I’m not there? So earlier this year I signed up to the Great Eastern Run which took place on Sunday. But I didn’t run it.

If you’ve ever done a big-ish run before you’ll know that you have to sign up for these things pretty far in advance. For example, the Cambridge Half is at the end of February but entries open next week. And we all know about the London Marathon timings thanks to a recent influx of status updates and tweets of joy or frustration from those trying to get a place. And having that amount of time can be a really good thing as it gives you the chance to formulate a cracking training plan. But on the flip side you always sign up to these things knowing you may get injured during training or come down ill a few days beforehand. Those are the breaks. But I wasn’t ill or injured. I simply wasn’t in the right mental state or indeed the best physical state to run 13 miles, and that wasn’t an easy thing to accept.

London Marathon Tweets

Marathon disappointments from some awesome Twitter types I follow

Now I know I can run 13 miles. I’ve done it a few times and although it’s not easy I’m physically fit enough to do it. But I want to do every race to the best of my ability, and so much of my training recently has been on interval and speedwork, leaving distance training to take a back seat. About 6 weeks ago I was starting to get nervous about the run, and I decided to talk to Alan to see what he thought I should do. But he raised the subject before I had the chance. He told me he didn’t think I should do it because I wasn’t quite in the right head space, which would make me more likely to have a bad run which would set me back mentally and also put me at risk of picking up an injury. Naturally my competitive instinct at that moment was to protest, to claim that of course I could do it. I thought I was letting myself down by backing out, not to mention my friend Elaine who had also signed up for it with the understanding that we’d be emotionally supporting each other to the finish line. But so much of the relationship between a runner and their coach is based on trust. If Alan gave me some advice and I then ignored it, then why should he bother? Plus can you imagine how insufferable he would be if I did get an injury? So we made a deal – give this one a miss with the aim to smash the Cambridge Half in February. And let’s face it – Alan has been right about an awful lot recently.

So this weekend I went seriously easy on myself and did very little. On Saturday evening Pete and I went for a speedy run around Ely in frankly gorgeous weather,  managing a chatty 5.4 miles in 40:30 which would put me in a comfortable 10k PB position. And then on Sunday morning I did Zumba with Elaine, laughing most of the way through the class at her antics before going to coffee with her where we put the world to rights for over and hour.

Scrolling through Facebook and Twitter later that day I did feel a pang of envy at those who had done the run, but I knew I had made the right decision. Sometimes you have to walk (or indeed run) away from something because it’s the right thing to do at that moment, even if the competitive part of you is yelling at you to just do it anyway and sod the consequences. Plus I have the Town & Gown 10k in two weeks, and after my run with Pete I’m now looking forward to it, feeling strong and confident that my chances of a good run are high.

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Sometimes I have to admit that my coach knows better than I do and that it’s OK to have an incredibly lazy weekend where you leave an indentation in the armchair because you’ve read 150 pages of your book and not moved for two hours except to reach for another chocolate. Sometimes you just need to do nothing.

And ok, so I did bake biscuits on Sunday afternoon, but they were easy ones, honest!

My Running Heroes

So after watching Paula Radcliffe run her final London Marathon last month (in a frankly ridiculous time after her foot surgery three years ago that had her in a mobility scooter worrying that she would never run again) I’ve been thinking about the people who inspire me in my running. It’s not easy for me to whittle it down to just five at this point in time, but that seems like a sensible number so let’s go with it for now.

PAULA RADCLIFFE

Since Paula is the inspiration behind this blog post it’s only right that I start with her. Chances are you know as much about Paula as I do, but the thing I love about her is that when you hear her in interviews she seems like the most unassuming, sweet, quiet person you could ever meet, but underneath it all this woman is pure steel and a running legend. How else could she do her London Marathon swansong amongst the muggles (deciding not to run with the “elite” athletes) at age 41 in 2:36:55, finishing in a time that was just 5 minutes slower than the leading British female runner Sonia Samuels? And she called herself “unprepared”. What an absolute machine.

Amazing PaulaPaula won the London Marathon in 2002, 2003 and 2005, and her 2003 winning time of 2:15:25 remains the world record. The 2015 winner, Tigist Tufa, finished in 2:23:22, 8 minutes off Paula’s record time. So 12 years later, and people still aren’t coming close to beating her. Astounding.

KATHRINE SWITZER

Now if you haven’t heard of the awesome Kathrine Switzer, I’m here to educate you on her brilliance, namely her being the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered runner in 1967, 5 years before women were officially allowed to run it. What a badass.

To press the importance of this on you, did you know that as recently as the 1960s, it was claimed that women couldn’t run a distance of 26.2 miles because their uterus might fall out and their (gasp!) legs might get big? Anything over 800m was considered de-feminising, and this gives you an idea of the kind of crap women like Kathrine had to put up with. The women’s marathon didn’t even become part of the Olympic games until 1984, (the men’s featured in the first Olympic games in 1896).

For the 1967 Boston Marathon, the rulebook didn’t state “no women”; it was just assumed that no woman would want to run it. So she signed up as K.V. Switzer, and ran as number 261. As she was running, her “ruse” (if it can even be called that) was discovered, and race official Jock Semple tried to drag her off the course, allegedly shouting “get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” Her boyfriend, Tom Miller, who was running with her, shoved Semple aside and sent him flying, allowing her to proceed. You can read her full account of the event here.

Switzer Warrior 1  Switzer Warrior 2

Kathrine went on to finish the race in 4:20 (her PB is 2:51:37), and spent the next five years alongside other runners convincing the Boston Athletic Association to allow women to participate in the marathon, succeeding in 1972. Most surprisingly, Semple (the angry bald fella in the dark clothing in the photos) had a change of heart, and was instrumental in this formal admission of female runners.

Kathrine published a book called Marathon Woman which went on to win the Billie Award for journalism for its inspiring portrayal of women in sports. She was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011 for creating a social revolution by empowering women around the world through running.

JO PAVEY

In my opinion, Jo is quite frankly the Queen of showing the kids how it’s done. After 26 years on the track and being an excellent athlete who never quite managed to get to the top of her game on an international stage (although with a hefty national medal haul under her belt), she is now bringing home Gold medals in her early forties, beating women who are literally half her age, at a time when plenty of other women would be winding down their exercise regime as their lives – and indeed their bodies – change.

Jo Pavey

In 2014, Jo unexpectedly (her words, not mine) won Gold in the 10,000m at the European championships, making her the oldest female European champion in history at the age of 40 years and 325 days. Writing for Runner’s World UK, she said “I now find myself looking ahead to 2015 with no thoughts of retirement. It’s pleasing, as I’m enjoying running and there are still things I would like to achieve.” And this is Jo in a nutshell. Humble but determined, knowing that there is a lot of hard work ahead of her but completely prepared for the challenge.  This is why I (and many others) voted for her in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. I never usually vote for things like that, but she inspired me into picking up the phone for her, and I was so delighted when she came third.

Plus I should add that she’s also a bit of a sugar junkie like me. Not something to be proud of (I’m working on reducing my intake!) but good to know I have something in common with her. Haribo anyone?

MO FARAH

Now I’m not going to waste your time or mine telling you about Mo’s amazing London 2012 Olympic successes as part of Super Saturday. That isn’t the reason Mo is on my list. The reason he’s here is because rather than resting on his laurels and saying “yup, I’m the best at the 5,000m and the 10,000, that’ll do” he instead went “NO! I WANT MORE!”. He’s basically the Veruca Salt of running.

Veruca Salt

So even though he had his naysayers who thought he should stick to what he knows best, Mo decided to focus more on half marathon and marathon distances. Along comes 2014 and in April he finished the London Marathon in eighth place in a time of 2:08.21, setting a new English national record, and then in August he successfully defended his 5,000m title and won a gold in the 10,000m in Zürich at the 2014 European Athletics Championships. Just another major championship double then. Then to cap it all off, in September he won the Great North Run in a personal best time of 1:00:00, exactly. What. A. Legend. I’ll even forgive him those Quorn ads because I like him and actually, I rather like Quorn too. Plus he has the best winning face ever. Fact.

Mo Farah Wins

STACY McGIVERN (AKA MY BIG SISTER)

First of all, she’s going to kill me for this, but I provide her with cake so I reckon I can placate her with a hefty wedge of tiffin.

Stacy has been an athlete roughly since the age of 14 or so. I remember when I used to accompany her on Sunday evenings to Comberton Village College Sports Hall to train with George Hibberd, and I would have a bash at the hurdles whilst Stace would nail the high jump on the other side of the hall. She was always willing to have her annoying little sister tag along (basically I wanted to hang out with her and this was the best way despite the fact that I was utterly useless) whilst she did her serious training, becoming an expert across so many disciplines (Triple Jump being her speciality). Her medal haul is ridiculous, and now as a (cough) veteran woman, she is still at the top of her game. This is exhibited by her result in the Cambs County Championships on Saturday afternoon, where after joking that she would at least get a medal as there were only 3 athletes in her 400m race, she went on to beast her opponents, finishing in 61.97 (which was only 2.3 seconds behind the 18 year old won her race).

Stacy Power

If you Google Stacy’s name or check her out on the Power of 10 website, you’ll get an idea of how much she’s won over the years (and how many times they’ve spelt her name wrong – there’s no “e” FYI). Last year, she also won the Peterborough Athletic Club Senior Woman award for Field. And on a personal level, having tried 400m and 800m distances myself recently, my respect for Stacy has gone through the roof, because those distances are tough. I just wish I’d done a better job of supporting her in the past, but hopefully I can make up for it now, even if she did say “Oh for God’s sake!” when she saw me turn up to watch her this weekend. I’m going to assume it was a pleasant surprise.

Stacy is one of the most modest athletes you’ll ever meet, and she probably has no idea how much she inspires me (more so than the other four athletes on this list), but I hope I can continue to improve and to share those experiences with her, as we talk about our races, most likely over cake.